Playwright: Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss
At: The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand Ave. Tickets: $32-62; chicagoshakes.com/SIX. Runs through: June 30
Everyone loves a diva.
If this North American premiere is to be believed, Henry VIII married a sextet of them. SIX, the new musical from Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss that's currently also playing London's West End, gives the controversial monarch's wives a voice of their own. In 80 breathless minutes of pop tunes, intricate choreography and plenty of rhinestones, the doomed spouses give a concert like none Chicago Shakespeare Theater has ever seen. Some may have mourned the loss of the Bedknobs and Broomsticks musical, but SIX is an explosive late-season replacement, a brilliant meditation on female struggle set to a boppy yet captivating soundtrack.
The fates of Henry VIII's wives are as follows: two divorced, two were beheaded. One died in childbirth, only one survived—and though the latter wrote books and advocated for women's education, her name is largely forgotten. Marlow and Moss's score, peppered with clever puns about decapitation, is a celebration of girlie bops through the ages.
Each queen is awarded her own musical monologue explaining her side of the story, and what stories they are: Jane Seymour ( Abby Mueller ) found a stoic soulmate in the king before her hopes of raising a family were ripped away. Anne Boleyn ( Andrea Macasaet ) was a party girl forced to live with Henry's soon-to-be-ex Catherine of Aragon ( Adrianna Hicks ) before she faced the literal chopping block. Though the queens realize their common bond, it's superseded by the desire to lead the band: whose sob story is the most tragic? And more importantly, whose inner strength will prevail?
SIX's London recording is available on iTunes and a worthy purchase even for those who can't make the live show. Each song is chock-full of history lessons and inside jokes for Tudor dynasty buffs, accompanied by melodies that will linger long after the music fades. Boleyn's "Don't Lose Ur Head" recalls early Britney Spears with its come-hither vibe and Anna of Cleves ( Brittney Mack ) — summoned from Germany because of her portrait and almost immediately rejected — channels Missy Elliott and Jay-Z in "Get Down," an ode to royal excess. Writer Moss co-directs the production with Jamie Armitage, and everything from the live "Ladies in Waiting" band to Tim Deiling's flashing lights and Carrie-Anne Ingrouille's choreography is meticulously planned and executed, to deliver an experience that's both illuminating and memorable.
Gabriella Slade deserves a rave review all her own for SIX's costume design, which seamlessly blends past and present with a vivid color palette, studded materials and fabulous silhouettes. Each queen sports heeled boots, standing on her own two feet the way she never could during her marriage, in a society that devalued women for everything but their looks. ( Sound familiar? ) Each queen is perfectly cast, shining bright in solos and blending in with angelic backup vocals. With a Hamilton-like peek into history and a girl-power message that never fails to acknowledge how far we still have to go, SIX is set to skyrocket and until the end of June, Chicago Shakespeare is the place to rock out.